Disclaimer: I’m a big fan of Futurama so some (read: most) of this will come off as cheerleading.
Futurama hit the airwaves as Matt Groening grew frustrated with his first creation, The Simpsons. As he gradually saw the Simpsons change into sitcom fare, he realized that he needed an outlet for his more philosophical, goofy bent.
Nearly from the beginning, Fox decided “Hey, let’s treat Matt’s show like garbage and see what happens.” So the show got shifted around like those cards you see street hustlers play around with. Eventually this mixed with the stranger nature of the show itself (which employed a great deal of Sci-Fi) lead to its cancellation.
But like a vampire, it lived in the undead realm of Cartoon Network re-runs. These proved to be effective once the show rose from the dead, like Family Guy did once college students bought the DVDs and watched them over and over. Cult-like followings of the show also came from various Sci-Fi aficionados who enjoyed the extremely nerdy humor employed.
When I first heard about the re-birth of the show, I was worried. Remembering how the Family Guy franchise suffered hard, I thought the same might occur with Futurama. Jokes that I originally thought funny with Family Guy felt stale upon watching the new episodes, like the show had plagiarized itself, if such a thing is in fact possible.
The movies didn’t help. Futurama worked best when it had certain restraints, so a full length movie sort of diluted what might have been strong singular episodes. Fans expressed disappointment at most of these, so I won’t go into it here. I’ll just say that perhaps Matt was on a movie kick from “The Simpsons Movie” so he felt that doing the same with another cartoon might work in raising its profile.
Comedy Central proved a good ally. Most other channels would’ve been like “Nah dude, just play the episodes”. I guess Comedy Central figured that the movies would be better than playing Saturday Night Live repeats from the early 90s once again.
So that leaves us with the actual episodes. These have been pretty excellent, with a few actually reaching the standards set in the first few seasons when they were on FOX. So it is doubly nice to know that even years later they are able to keep up the quality and that the movies were weak due to their length, not due to a lack of creativity.
“Rebirth”, the first episode, sort of had an in-joke about the show’s cancellation while getting right back into the meat and potatoes of the series. Leela and Fry are involved, and there’s some strange goings-on regarding the entire crew. Dr. Farnsworth steals the show to some extent, thanks to an extra dose of insane that they give him.
Not all succeeded in this way though. In the “In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela” there isn’t much to laugh at, and Captain Zapp Brannigan can’t even make the episode work. Plus, the end feels very forced and confused, like the writers had spaced out and quickly dashed it off.
On the other extreme, “Lethal Inspection” rocked. Everything I could’ve wanted from the series came together here. Plus, the focus on mortality worked well and gave the jokes a bit of heart, which was nice from some of the more gag nature of what had been going on (like with the Attack of the Killer App episode, which had that gross and unfunny singing Boil). Some of my favorite Futurama episodes from yore worked in this way so it was a real treat.
Ultimately, the new series does work in a good way. Perhaps there’s a little more of MOM than before, but that’s alright. When you get down to it, the writers genuinely care about the characters. That’s the difference between this and “Family Guy”. Family Guy relies on cut-away gags (parodied by South Park) and cruelty (see Brian getting shot in the kneecaps). There’s little attempt made in that show to allow the audience to sympathize with Peter, Stewie, etc. Futurama brings that to you. Leela, Hermes, Bender, and the rest of the gang are treated with the utmost care. And the reasons that some episodes fail is when the writers forget that and just write cheap jokes (like with Amy and Bender hooking up).